The Global, the Local and Intercultural Communicative Competence in Taiwan

Written by Jenna Lynn Cody.

Image Credit: 2015 清大電機英文營-1705 by 楊淳佑/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since its inception, the “Bilingual by 2030” initiative has drawn widespread criticism, primarily focused on a single titular keyword: bilingual. Social media posts citing “Mandarin” and “English” as the target languages of “Bilingual by 2030” by Vice President William Ching-te Lai certainly didn’t help. An initial focus on the possibility of making English a “second official language” in Taiwan and a failure to assuage worries that everyone would be forced to learn English made matters worse.

Taiwan is already a multilingual society, and a narrow focus on Mandarin/English bilingualism ignores the local Sinitic and Indigenous languages spoken in Taiwan that have faced centuries of oppression and the mother tongues of the newest Taiwanese. In addition, other foreign languages which may interest some learners are left out, as well.

This is a major public relations misstep by Vice President Lai and the Ministry of Education.  Few have taken the time to read the National Development Council (NDC)’s blueprint for Bilingual by 2030, despite its brevity. This blueprint clarifies that English will not be made a “second official language” by 2030 — the creators wisely relegate that debate to an undefined future time — and specifically indicates that local languages are to be given equal attention and resources. The plan calls for an overall improvement in English proficiency, focusing on the people and resources that non-Mandarin speakers are most likely to interact with, not forcing everyone to learn English. The educational focus is on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an academically sound approach for societies where a language is not part of everyday life or media.

That said, this PR blunder and the resulting criticism belie possible areas of neglect. For example, the blueprint calls for equal resources for local and mother-tongue language learning, but is that happening? As Bilingual by 2030 is still under development, it’s difficult to say. However, the benchmarks announced do indeed seem to prioritise English.

This Mandarin/English binary assumption is not aligned with the current academic consensus in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). The “multilingual turn” has gained traction in recent years, with calls to replace old ‘deficit’ or ‘subtractive’ models (“you don’t know [language] well enough”) to ‘abundance’ or ‘additive’ approaches (“your local context and language knowledge is a benefit to you and others”) Advocates of the multilingual turn point out that multilingualism was a global norm before the rise of modern nationalism. Through this lens, language learning models based on multilingualism have the power to internationalise and decolonise.

Will Bilingual by 2030 achieve this? This is where the critics make a strong point indeed. It is odd for someone like Vice President Lai, a supporter of a sovereign Taiwan with a unique identity and history, to put so much focus on Mandarin and English in his discussion of the program. Non-Mandarin Sinitic languages and Indigenous languages are additive; they showcase Taiwan’s abundance. A need for English is not necessarily a deficit.

There is a learning approach that may address all these issues: Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC). This model, first proposed by Michael Byram in the late 1990s, calls for developing the ability to understand and manage relationships between people of different cultures while speaking a foreign language, which may or may not be the first language of one’s interlocutors. This is done through metacognitive processes of interpreting what others say and relating it to your perspective, the ability to interact and learn, knowledge of a foreign culture and society as well as one’s own, and a core of motivation and respect along with critical self-awareness.

Language proficiency — linguistic, sociolinguistic and discourse competence — also plays a role in ICC. However, the orientation of that language learning should include these other communicative and cross-cultural relationship-building skills.

This model makes room for an additive approach to the local languages Taiwanese learners already know or would like to learn. It shifts the focus from learning something foreign to the relationship between self and other, foreign and local, the past and present, offering opportunities for inclusion in language classrooms and also history, geography, civics, and art classes. It also pushes for greater international outreach through multilingualism. As an example, consider the Netflix drama Seqalu: Formosa 1867 and the novel it was based on, Chen Yao-chang’s 2016 Kui Lei Hua (傀儡花). Could Seqalu have reached potential international audiences without a healthy respect for the multilingualism and multiculturalism of Taiwan’s past (and present) through a contemporary international medium?

If the Bilingual by 2030 initiative were to pivot to a true ICC-influenced approach, English proficiency — most importantly communicative ability — could be improved while simultaneously prioritising not just rote grammar-based learning of Taiwan’s heritage and mother tongues but using the learning of these languages as guides to critical cultural and self-awareness. It would necessitate approaching those who already speak Taiwan’s local languages and asking them what support they prefer. Do they want regular language classes to supplement or substitute for at-home use? More media in their language to provide varied input? The normalisation of their language more widely, such as promoting Taiwanese language use, even in urban centres like Taipei? Has anyone asked?

Of course, this would entail a reconsideration of how current resources are distributed and push the Ministry of Education to re-think the testing-industrial complex that looms over Taiwanese education, which does not in any way measure language proficiency, let alone communicative ability. Finally, it would shift the focus away from recruiting foreign “native speaker” teachers and towards international collaboration with Taiwanese teachers in leadership roles.

There are signs that Taiwanese language teachers are open to this. Anecdotally, I’ve found that local teachers have voiced support for the program. In addition, earlier research indicates a willingness among Taiwanese teachers to use communicative approaches in the classroom and a belief that the need to prepare onerous testing requirements make such methodologies challenging to implement.

One might ask why English is necessary at all if multilingualism is the goal. Japan and South Korea have developed into advanced nations without exceptionally high English proficiency, and places where English is widely spoken, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and India, all have colonial histories tied to English-speaking countries.

However, nobody is debating whether Japan or South Korea are countries, but this discussion inexplicably rages regarding Taiwan, despite having all the benchmarks of a sovereign nation. Therefore, to reach out to the international community and show them that Taiwan exists and has a distinct identity and history, a knowledge of that history’s multilingual and multicultural aspects is vital, along with the ability to engage with audiences that do not speak those languages.

When doing my own research, despite having Taiwanese-language proficiency, one participant spoke of being deprived of the perfect fluency in Taiwanese that his parents had. “It’s like they cut my tongue,” he said of this experience. He was not speaking of the imposition of English as a coloniser language. He admitted to once feeling this way about English before realising that such a label could not be so easily slapped on it in a Taiwanese context. To him, Mandarin was the coloniser language.

To truly orient Bilingual by 2030 toward the multilingual approach it claims to take, then all these issues must be considered. Where are the resources going, compared to where the blueprint says they should? How can retreating from the Mandarin/English binary and towards a ‘multilingual turn’ be practically implemented? How can we incorporate increased English proficiency in a practical, communicative way based on the principles of Intercultural Communicative Competence, and what reforms would that entail?

In time, one hopes the Ministry of Education and those working on the Bilingual by 2030 initiative specifically will consider these questions and offer evidence-based solutions. However, 2030 is less than a decade away. Therefore, we might want to ask ourselves whether the deadline is crucial or whether getting it right should be the country’s priority.

Jenna Lynn Cody is a teacher trainer who has lived and worked in Taiwan since 2006 with her husband, Brendan. She holds an MEd in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the University of Exeter (Distinction and Dean’s Commendation), where her research focused on the incorporation of Intercultural Communicative Competence in teacher training courses in Taiwan. She writes for Taipei Magazine and Ketagalan Media and blogs at Lao Ren Cha.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Multilingual Taiwan.

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